Study Guide

Jahanara in Beneath a Marble Sky

By John Shors


In the gallery that prefaces Under a Marble Sky, Jahanara is described as "highly intelligent, ambitious, resourceful, and loyal." That's not a bad start, but Shors is being purposefully brief—after all, he described Aurangzeb as merely "aggressive," and, uhh, yeah, that's an understatement. So while we totally agree that these adjectives give a good initial picture of our protagonist, they barely begin to encompass all that is Jahanara.

Little Squirrel

Let's start with the obvious: Jahanara is way smart. She's well read, she's quick to pick up on new things, and she's naturally inquisitive. Even as a little girl, she quickly earns a reputation for being one of those kids who goes around just absorbing information:

"Do you know, my lady, what we called you?"

Confused, I stopped working on his sword. "Called me?"

"So many questions you ask," he said fondly. "Even as a young girl. And so the servants nicknamed you Little Squirrel, for such animals are always chattering to each other."

"I was a rodent?"

Nizam chuckled. "It seems so."

"Couldn't you have called me something else? After all, tigers constantly growl at each other."

"You were always Little Squirrel, my lady. It suited you well."

Yeah, squirrels aren't exactly the most flattering things to be compared to, but it's evident that this nickname was a term of endearment. And her marked curiosity serves Jahanara well, because she's not destined to live out her life sitting in comfort amidst the luxuries of the harem. Nope—her life puts her on a path where being clever and resourceful aren't just traits to be proud of, but also traits that will save her life.

Early on, Jahanara's mother recognizes her daughter's intelligence and trains Jahanara to respect the importance of women's wiles. Basically, in this society, a woman has to use her brains if she wants to survive and thrive.

Jahanara learns that in this society, women need to cultivate a quiet kind of power, something they can acquire by collecting knowledge of people's weaknesses, motivations, and desires, and then figuring out how to that knowledge against them.

Jahanara learns her lessons well:

Equipped with confidence, I was ready to speak with nobles who Mother claimed were attracted to me. Most men thought my youth and sex made me as threatening as a toothless cobra. They grew gallant when I pretended bashfulness, told me secrets when I prepared to walk away. As the Emperor, Father could have controlled these men in any manner he wished, but it seemed he'd rather sweeten them with honey than subdue them with his fist. And so I wooed them. (3.5)

Yeah, we know. Every person raised with an ounce of Western feminist theory just cringed so hard their necks cramped up, but remember—this all takes place in the Mughal court of 17th century. Jahanara's not an American career woman; she's a Mughal princess. These are her options, so she uses what she's given and then excels at it.

When her mom dies, Jahanara's world is turned upside down, and she's forced to go from trainee to master manipulator pretty quickly. But she's well suited for the role. In fact, within a few years, we find her conducting an illicit affair without anyone's knowledge (except her father's) and masterminding a stolen-ring ruse that simultaneously allows her to place a trusted spy in Aurangzeb's bed and ensures her own safety from 'Zeb's paranoid machinations.

When it becomes evident that our girl's plans are going according to…well…plan, she even gets a little cocky:

"You may be a master of stone, Isa, and the most astounding man I've met, but you know nothing of the guile of women. How do you think we flourish in this world where men decide what we can and cannot do? Because of your rules?" I laughed at the notion, recalling how Mother and my great-grandmother had led Hindustan in all but title. "Khondamir, trust me, shall think himself the father. I am uncertain how I'll do it, but when my honeyed talk is done, he'll boast to anyone with an ear of his deed." (11.91)

In the end, all of Jahanara's scheming and planning actually works out for the best. She finds a way to neatly dispatch her husband (well, it probably wasn't all that "neat," since there were swords involved), rescue Ladli from her life with Aurangzeb, and run away with Isa and Arjumand for a happy life by the sea, all using her clever mind and some subtle manipulation.

Good little squirrel.

Golden Retriever

Knowing how manipulative and clever Jahanara can be, it's a good thing she's also incredibly loyal. She loves her family intensely—particularly her parents—but she also has a keen sense of devotion toward friends like Ladli and Nizam.

This is usually a great quality in a person, but for Jahanara it can be a bit of a drawback. As Isa points out, some of her dedication to her loved ones stems from a deep-seated insecurity. She needs to feel loved, so in order to get that, she bends over backwards trying to please others:

"You should love yourself. But alas I think that in order to love yourself, you need other people to love you. This is your only weakness, Jahanara. Because you live your life as you believe others deem you should. You live it for your father, your mother, for everyone but yourself." (12.116)

As we all know, this trait becomes especially problematic when Jahanara has to make a choice between staying for her father's sake or fleeing with her lover and child. Yeah, it's great to be loyal and to care for others, but when you craft all of your decisions around what other people need, you become a doormat.

Toward the end of her life, when she's recounting her story to her granddaughters, Jahanara tells them that that's the one lesson she wishes them to learn:

"No, Rurayya is right. I didn't have to leave, and what I did was foolish."

Gulbadan tugs at her veil. "Then why did you go?"


"Isa recognized how much I sought my father's approval. But what he didn't recognize is why I truly sought it. Nor did I, until recently."

"Why did you?"

"Because as a young girl, I knew that I could…I couldn't ever match my brothers. In the eyes of nobles and warriors and artists I'd always be a weak girl. I'd never be treated as they were, never be as cherished and encouraged the way a boy would. And so I tried, always tried, to show my father that I was truly worthy of his love. And he did love me tremendously and valued my thoughts as much as anyone's. He praised me night and day. But sometimes I wondered if I truly merited such praise. That's why I went back to him, to prove to myself that his love and praise weren't misplaced, that he'd been right about me when my brother, my husband and so many others had been wrong."

My granddaughters don't respond. I see the sudden anguish in their eyes, and I grasp their hands. "You needn't prove anything to anyone, including yourselves. If you take one message from my story, take that."

(Part 4.4-8)

Ahhh, the wisdom that comes with time and age. If only Jahanara had seen that those who loved her did so unconditionally, maybe her life would have been a bit easier. But hey, we guess having love issues is a problem that runs in her family. *cough* Aurangzeb *cough*

Little Swallow

Being too loyal isn't Jahanara's only flaw: she's also super impatient. She's so antsy, we have it on good authority that her favorite knock-knock joke would be Interrupting Cow.

Some of Jahanara's impatience comes from her constant desire to please others. She wants to show everyone how clever she is, so she tries to find a solution to every problem someone confronts her with—and she wants to do it immediately. Her father, who is perhaps in the best position to know his children's weaknesses, scolds her often for her eagerness:

"Don't always move with such haste, Jahanara. I fear that impatience is your true weakness, for the tiger that springs too early often goes hungry."

I stifled a response, smart enough to realize that my rashness was a fault.

In fact, it's the way her father describes Jahanara's impatience that leads Isa to give her the nickname "Little Swallow":

"Your father told me to beware of your impatience."

"My impatience?"

"He said you were like a young swallow as it prepared to fly, forever leaping from the nest too quickly."

And just like her need to please does, Jahanara's impatience earns her some scolding from time to time. When Nizam comes to her cell after many years' absence, for example, Jahanara's so anxious to hear what news he carries that he's barely even able to get any words out before she's rushing him for more:

"A moon ago, my lady, we fought a terrible battle." Nizam spoke slowly, so slowly that I wanted to set a coal beneath his bottom. "I killed many that day, and when we were routed, I feigned death. I was covered in blood, for I'd a scalp would that…" Nizam paused, looking about uncertainly, as if he spoke too much.

"Go on."

"Leave him in peace, Jahanara," Father chided.

Later, when Jahanara is finally to be reunited with Isa and Arjumand after years away, Nizam teases her about her inability to wait:

"Will they never get here?" I asked, attacking my hair with an ivory comb I discovered on the windowsill.

"Patience, my lady, was never your gift."

"I've no time for patience!"

He laughed gently. "Perhaps when you're old."

"No, because I'll have less time left and just as much to do."

Jahanara's impatience doesn't get her into the same kind of trouble her need to please does, but it does show us how eager she is to get things moving, to live her life, to prove that she's got what it takes. Life doesn't always oblige, but that's kind of just how life rolls.

So, to sum up: our Jahanara is impatient like a young swallow, clever like a squirrel, and loyal like a golden retriever (okay, we made up the golden retriever comparison—deal with it). But there's one more animal that Jahanara is to be compared to in the novel: an elephant. We know, we know—women don't usually like to be called elephants. But when Nizam calls her a white elephant, it's a compliment of the highest order.

White Elephant

For the people of Hindustan and their neighboring kingdoms, elephants represent status in a big way. Only the richest kingdoms can afford to have troops of war elephants to fight their battles, and only the wealthiest people can have them in their menageries

White elephants, though, are the highest status elephants to have, because they're so rare. (And no, we're not talking about useless-but-expensive gifts or possessions; white elephants are also real animals.) Owning a white elephant is like owning a Ferrari Sergio: both are cool, very rare, and very expensive.

While travelling to rescue Isa and Arjumand from their captivity in the south, Jahanara voices her fears that Isa will no longer be interested in her romantically:

"But he loves beautiful things, Nizam. Think of the Taj Mahal, think of what he creates. Why would such a man care for old things, when he can have something new?"

"You aren't a thing," he replied. "And perhaps that's the difference between us and other men. For most think of women as things, while we think of you as…" He paused, embarrassed. "I'm not a man of many words, my lady, nor am I a poet. But it seems to me that we think of you as…as white elephants. We search a lifetime for you, and when we finally find you, we'll not toss you away."

Awww. Way to tell us pretty much everything we need to know about our heroine, Nizam. And you say you're not a poet…